Tag Archives: primary

Fifty Shades of Grading: Assessment & Primary Mathematics

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about assessment practices and primary mathematics. Some time ago I wrote a post about assessment, and I’m updating it here because I continue to have concerns about why, how, when and what we are assessing in our primary mathematics classrooms.

“Effective pedagogy requires effective assessment, assessment that provides the critical links between what is valued as learning, ways of learning, ways of identifying need and improvement, and perhaps most significantly, ways of bridging school and other communities of practice” (Wyatt-Smith, Cumming, Elkins, & Colbert, 2010, p. 320)

It’s through our assessment we communicate most clearly to students those learning outcomes we value, yet it’s often held that no subject is as associated with its form of assessment as is mathematics (Clarke, 2003). Assessment practices in mathematics often consist of formal methods such as tests and examinations (Wiliam, 2007), and it’s believed that such strategies need as much consideration for renewal as does content and classroom pedagogy. Although lots of progress has been made in terms of improving mathematics teaching and learning and curriculum, many such improvements have failed due to a mismatch between assessment practices and pedagogy (Bernstein, 1996; Pegg, 2003). It’s been suggested that in mathematics, there should not be more assessment, but more appropriate assessment strategies implemented to inform learning and teaching as well as report on progress and achievement (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, 2008; Clarke, 2003). And this is one of the points I want to highlight – assessment to inform teaching. Regardless of the type of assessments we use, are we using assessment data in the right way?

What do you do with your assessment work samples? Do you simply use the scores to determine how students are grouped, or what aspects of a topic you need to cover? How often do we, as teachers, take the time to analyse the work samples in order to identify specific misconceptions? Imagine a scenario where students are grouped according to assessment scores. Each of those groups are then exposed to pedagogies intended to address the ‘level’ of the group. What if, within each group, there were a range of misconceptions? And what about the top groups? What if work samples that resulted in accurate answers exposed misconceptions despite being correct?

When students transition from one level of schooling to another, it’s not uncommon to hear teachers complaining about the broad range of abilities, and more specifically, those students who appear not to have achieved the most basic skills. How have these students managed to get to kindergarten/Year 3/Year 6/high school/university without knowing how to……? Mathematics content is hierarchical – when students miss out on learning concepts in the early years, the gaps in knowledge continue to widen as they progress through school. Whether caused by inattention, absence from school, or any other reason, students find it hard to catch up when they’re missing pieces of the mathematical jigsaw puzzle. It’s like building a house on faulty foundations.

So how can we fix this? A teacher recently told me that she didn’t have time to analyse the responses in an assessment task. Isn’t this our job? How can we manage workloads so that teachers have the time to really think about where students are going wrong, and how can teachers access professional learning to assist them in being able to identify and address students’ misconceptions?

Another concern is related to the quality of assessment tasks. I have seen many tasks that are poorly worded or poorly set out, or have diagrams that can only lead to confusion or misconceptions. Often tasks test mathematical content but do not provide opportunities for students to express their reasoning. A student can achieve a correct answer while maintaining a misconception – if we don’t ask them about their thinking, are we really assessing their true ability?

I think one way we can address these issues is to think carefully about the design and the quantity of assessment tasks. Administer fewer, better quality tasks that are designed to assess both the content and the processes of mathematics. That is, tasks that require students to show their working, explain their thinking, and produce an answer. The more they show, the more we see. Another strategy to assist teachers is to provide time for teachers to look at assessment samples and analyse them collaboratively, discussing the identified misconceptions and planning strategically to address them.

The knowledge that teachers need to effectively teach mathematics is special. We need to know more about mathematics than the average person – we need to understand where, why and when our students are likely to go wrong, so we can either avoid misconceptions occurring, or address them when they do. This specialist knowledge comes from continued professional learning and collaboration with peers. Don’t just rely on the curriculum documents – we need to look beyond this to ensure we have that specialist knowledge.

This post posed more questions than answers in relation to assessment in the mathematics classroom. Hopefully it will spark some conversation and thinking about what we are doing with the assessment work samples we gather, regardless of why type of assessments they are. If we don’t try and change the way we use assessment, we’ll always have those students who will struggle with mathematics, and while there will always be a range of achievement levels in every group of students, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to close those gaps!

References:

Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers. (2008). The practice of assessing mathematics learning. Adelaide, SA: AAMT Inc.

Bernstein, B. (1996). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. London: Taylor and Francis.

Clarke, D. (2003, 4-5 December). Challenging and engaging students in worthwhile mathematics in the middle years. Paper presented at the Mathematics Association of Victoria Annual Conference: Making Mathematicians, Melbourne.

Pegg, J. (2003). Assessment in mathematics. In J. M. Royer (Ed.), Mathematical cognition (pp. 227-260). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Wiliam, D. (2007). Keeping learning on track: Classroom assessment and the regulation of learning. In F. K. J. Lester (Ed.), Second handbook of mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 1053-1098). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Wyatt-Smith, C. M., Cumming, J., Elkins, J., & Colbert, P. (2010). Redesigning assessment. In D. Pendergast & N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching middle years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (2nd ed., pp. 319-379). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

A recipe for success: Critical ingredients for a successful mathematics lesson

What are the ingredients for a good mathematics lesson? Teachers are continually faced with a range of advice or ideas to improve their mathematics lessons. It’s a little bit like recipes. New cookbooks appear on bookstore shelves, but often they’re just adaptations of recipes that have been around before, and their foundation ingredients are tried and tested, and often evidence based. There are always the staple ingredients and methods that are required for the meal to be successful.

The following is a list of what I consider to be important ingredients when planning and teaching a successful mathematics lesson. The list (or recipe) is split into two: lesson planning and lesson structure.

Lesson planning:

  • Be clear about your goal. What exactly do you want your students to learn in this lesson? How are you going to integrate mathematical content with mathematical processes? (The proficiencies or Working Mathematically components)
  • Know the mathematics. If you don’t have a deep understanding of the mathematics or how students learn that aspect of mathematics, how can you teach it effectively? Where does the mathematics link across the various strands within the mathematics curriculum?
  • Choose good resources. Whether they are digital or concrete materials, make sure they are the right ones for the job. Are they going to enhance students’ learning, or will they cause confusion? Be very critical about the resources you use, and don’t use them just because you have them available to you!
  • Select appropriate and purposeful tasks. Is it better to have one or two rich tasks or problems, or pages of worksheets that involve lots of repetition? Hopefully you’ve selected the first option – it is better to have fewer, high quality tasks rather than the traditional worksheet or text book page. You also need to select tasks that are going to promote lots of thinking and discussion.
  • Less is more. We often overestimate what students will be able to do in the length one lesson. We need to make sure students have time to think, so don’t cram in too many activities.
  • You don’t have to start and finish a task in one lesson. Don’t feel that every lesson needs to be self-contained. Children (and adults) often need time to work on complex problems and tasks – asking students to begin and end a task within a short period of time often doesn’t give them time to become deeply engaged in the mathematics. Mathematics is not a race!

Lesson Structure:

  • Begin with a hook. How are you going to engage your students to ensure their brains are switched on and ready to think mathematically from the start of each lesson? There are lots of ways to get students hooked into the lesson, and it’s a good idea to change the type of hook you use to avoid boredom. Things like mathematically interesting photographs, YouTube clips, problems, newspaper articles or even a strategy such as number busting are all good strategies.
  • Introduction: Make links to prior learning. Ensure you make some links to mathematics content or processes from prior learning – this will make the lesson more meaningful for students and will reassure anxious students. Use this time to find out what students recall about the particular topic – avoid being the focus of attention and share the lesson with students. Talk about why the topic of the lesson is important – where else does it link within the curriculum, and beyond, into real life?
  • Make your intentions clear. Let students know what they’re doing why they’re doing it. How and where is knowing this mathematics going to help them?
  • Body: This is a good time for some collaboration, problem solving and mathematical investigation. It’s a time to get students to apply what they know, and make links to prior learning and across the mathematics curriculum. This is also a time to be providing differentiation to ensure all student needs are addressed.
  • Closure: This is probably the most important time in any mathematics lesson. You must always include reflection. This provides an opportunity for students to think deeply about what they have learned, to make connections, and to pose questions. It’s also a powerful way for you, the teacher, to collect important evidence of learning. Reflection can be individual, in groups, and can be oral or written. It doesn’t matter, as long as it happens every single lesson.

There are many variables to the ingredients for a good mathematics lesson, but most importantly, know what you are teaching, provide opportunities for all students to achieve success, and be enthusiastic and passionate about mathematics!

Setting Your Child up for Success with Maths: Tips for Parents

As a new school year approaches, many parents are busy preparing their children to ensure they have the things they need to be successful. School uniforms, books, pens and pencils are important, but what’s even more important is the preparation and support parents can provide to help children succeed academically.

Late in 2016 there were reports from international testing that Australia continues to slip further behind in mathematics when compared to other countries.  So, what can you do about this? Relying on teachers alone won’t fix the problem. There are many things parents can and should do to help their children learn mathematics, particularly before they begin school and during the primary school years. The following is a list of tips for parents that will help them to help their children succeed:

  1. Be positive about maths!

May people openly claim they don’t like maths or they’re not good at it, unintentionally conveying the message that this is okay. Unfortunately, this can have a detrimental effect on the children who hear these messages. In my research on student engagement, children whose parents made similar comments often used the same comments as mathematics became more challenging during the high school years. These behaviours can lead to children opting to stop trying and drop out of mathematics as soon as they can, ultimately limiting their life choices.

As a parent, be conscious of displaying positive attitudes towards mathematics, even when it’s challenging. Adopting what is referred to as a ‘growth mindset’ allows children (and parents) to acknowledge that mathematics is challenging, but not impossible. Rather than saying “I can’t do it” or “it’s too hard”, encourage statements such as “I can’t do it yet” or “let’s work on this together”. If you’re struggling with the mathematics yourself, and finding it difficult to support your child, there are options such as free online courses like Jo Boaler’s YouCubed website (www.youcubed.org), apps such as Khan Academy, or you can seek help from their child’s teacher.

If you choose to use a tutor to help your child, make sure it’s a tutor who knows how to teach for understanding, rather than memorisation. Too often tutoring colleges use the traditional teaching method of drill and practice, which won’t help a struggling student to understand important mathematical concepts. Find a tutor who understands the curriculum and can tailor a program to work alongside what your child is learning at school.

  1. Developing a positive working relationship with teachers

It’s important for parents to work with their child’s teacher to ensure they are able to support the learning of mathematics. This will help the teacher understand the child’s needs and be better able to support the child in the classroom, while at the same time helping the parents support the child at home. Often schools hold information evenings or maths workshops to help explain current teaching methods with few parents turning up. It’s important to attend these events as they are a good opportunity to learn ways to help children with mathematics at home.

  1. Know what maths your child is learning

Mathematics teaching and learning has changed significantly over the last few decades. Unfortunately, many of the older generations still expect children to be learning the same maths in the same way, regardless of how much the world has changed! Access to the mathematics curriculum is free to everyone. Parents have the opportunity to find out what their child should be learning simply by accessing the curriculum online, or talking to their child’s teacher. This can help parents who may have unrealistic expectations of what their child should know and be able to do, and will also help them understand that mathematics is not just about numbers or learning the multiplication tables.

One of the most common complaints when it comes to school mathematics is that children don’t ‘know’ their multiplication tables. Is this important? Yes, it’s still important that children gain fluency when dealing with numbers. However, it’s also important that we don’t just rely on rote learning, or repetition. Children need to understand how the numbers work. In other words, they need to be numerate, and have a flexibility with numbers. Once they understand, then fluency can be built. Using maths games (there are lots of apps that help with this) is a good way of getting children to build up speed with number facts.

  1. Make maths part of everyday activities

Bring maths into daily conversations and activities with your child. After all, there’s maths in everything we do. For example, if you’re cooking you might ask your child to help you measure out ingredients. If you’re shopping, you could have a little competition to see who can make the best estimation of the total grocery bill or perhaps ask your child to work out the amount of change (this may be challenging given that we use credit cards most of the time).

If your child likes to play digital games, download some maths apps so they can use their screen time to learn while having fun at the same time. Alternatively, traditional games can provide opportunities to talk about maths and help your child. Games that use dominoes and playing cards are great for young children as are board games such as Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly. Even non-numerical games such as Guess Who have benefits for mathematics because the promote problem solving and strategic thinking, important mathematical skills.

Parents who can work with their child’s teacher, be proactive in their child’s education, and demonstrate positive attitudes towards mathematics can make a big difference to their child’s success at school. It’s an investment worth making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia’s Declining Maths Results: Who’s Responsible?

Once again, mathematics education is in the spotlight. The most recent TIMMS  and PISA results highlight a decline in Australia’s mathematics achievement when compared to other countries, which will no doubt perpetuate the typical knee jerk reactions of panic and blame. So, what are we doing about this decline? Who’s responsible? Typically, the first to get the blame for anything related to a decline in mathematics are teachers, because they work at the coal face, they spend significant amounts of time with students, and they’re an easy target. But shouldn’t we, as a society that considers it acceptable to proudly claim “I’m not good at maths” (Attard, 2013), take some portion of the blame?

Numeracy and Mathematics education is everyone’s business

As a society, we all need to take some responsibility for the decline in mathematics achievement and more importantly, we all need to collaborate on a plan to change the decline into an incline. From my perspective, there are three groups of stakeholders who need to work together: the general community, the policy makers and school systems that influence and implement the policies, and the teachers.

Let’s start with the general community. It seems everybody’s an expert when it comes to mathematics education because we all experienced schooling in some form. Many say: “I survived rote learning – it didn’t hurt me”. The world has changed, access to information and technology has improved dramatically, and the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ practices are no longer appropriate in today’s classrooms. Many hold a limited view of school mathematics as drill and practice of number facts and computation. Although it’s important that children build fluency, it’s simply not enough. We must promote problem solving and critical thinking within relevant contexts – making the purpose of learning mathematics visible to students. It is, after all, problem solving that forms the core of NAPLAN, TIMSS and PISA tests.

The community pressure for teachers to use text books and teach using outdated methods, along with a crowded curriculum and an implied requirement for teachers to ‘tick curriculum boxes’ causes significant tensions for teachers, particularly in the primary school where they are required to be experts at every subject. If we consider the limited number of hours allocated to mathematics education in teacher education degrees compared with the expectations that all primary teachers suddenly become experts on graduation, then we should understand that teachers need continued support beyond their tertiary education to develop their skills. In addition, rather than focusing on students’ learning, the crowded curriculum  leads them to focus on getting through the curriculum (http://v7-5.australiancurriculum.edu.au/mathematics/curriculum/f-10?layout=2#page=1) and this often leads to a ‘back to basics’ approach of text books, work sheets and lots of testing that does not create students who can problem solve, problem pose and problem find.

This is where the policy makers and school systems must come into play by providing support for high quality and sustained professional learning and encouraging primary teachers to gain expertise as specialist mathematics teachers. We already have a strong curriculum that promotes problem solving and critical thinking both through the Proficiencies and through the General Capabilities. The General Capabilities provide teachers with the opportunity to embed mathematics in contextual, relevant and purposeful mathematics. However, teachers need to be supported by all stakeholders, the community and the policy makers, to use these tools and focus less on the teaching of mathematics as a series of isolated topics that make little sense to students.

What can we do?

There are no easy solutions, but one thing is clear. We need to disrupt the stereotypical perceptions of what school mathematics is and how it should be taught. We need to support our teachers and work with them rather than against them. Let’s band together and make some changes that will ultimately benefit the most important stakeholders of all, the children of Australia.

 

 

Attard, C. (2013). “If I had to pick any subject, it wouldn’t be maths”: Foundations for engagement with mathematics during the middle years. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 25(4), 569-587.

 

Christmas Maths: Open ended investigations for Grades 4-6

In this final Christmas themed post, I am including a range of open-ended investigations that are suitable for upper primary and lower secondary students (from the book Engaging Maths: Everyday Investigations Years 3 to 6). You will notice that some of the investigations extend beyond the mathematics curriculum and integrate quite easily into other key learning areas. This is intentional. If we want to engage students in mathematics, then making it contextual often requires it to either be embedded within another subject area or at least have some connections to other areas. Another consideration is the General Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics. When we incorporate contextual mathematics and investigation-based tasks, we are more likely to include the General Capabilities and this is evidenced in the activities below.

Short activities:

  1. If you have a Christmas tree in your house or school, how tall is it? Can you reach the top of the tree by reaching up? How much taller than you is the Christmas tree? What fraction of the height of the tree is your height?
  2. Draw a picture of a Christmas tree. Use your drawing as a plan to show where you will place the decorations.
  3. Tie a piece of tinsel to the very top of the Christmas Tree. Wind the tinsel around the tree until you reach the lowest branch. What is the length of the tinsel?
  4. If the individual lights of a string of Christmas lights are 30 cm apart, how many lights would you need so decorate the perimeter of the classroom?
  5. How would you work out how much wrapping paper needed to wrap 10 presents that were each the size of a shoe box? Record all of your working out. What mathematics did you use?

Investigations:

  1. Plan a Christmas party for some of your friends. Show all the mathematics that you need to use for your planning.
  2. Many families start to budget for Christmas presents several months before Christmas day. Design a budget for the Christmas presents that you would like to give to your family members, relatives and friends. Perhaps you might like to include your teachers.
  3. Survey the other students in your class using the question, “Do you have a Christmas tree in your home?” “Is it a real tree or an artificial tree?” “Which type of tree do you prefer and why?” Present the data that you have collected and present a report to your class.

Extension Activities:

  1. Investigate and research the tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas. Answer questions such as “When did the tradition start?”
  2. Plan menus for the meals for family for Christmas Day and Boxing Day and include a budget.
  3. Make a list of the things you would like for Christmas. Sort your items into needs and wants. How would your list compare to the list of a child in a different country? Investigate.

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts that have included many rich activities to keep students engaged with mathematics until the very last day of the school year. If you do implement any of the tasks, I would love to hear from you and see your students’ work samples!

More Christmas Maths: Open-ended tasks and Investigations for the Early Years Classroom

The use of open-ended tasks and mathematical investigations provides opportunities for students to demonstrate their abilities in a creative, non-threatening and meaningful way while promoting high levels of engagement and providing rich assessment data. Although the end of the year is near, the use of Christmas as a context for meaningful mathematics is an opportunity that is too good to miss. Providing students with a context that is exciting and relevant will ensure they maintain their engagement with mathematics until the end of the school year.

This week I am sharing a set of tasks that are taken from a book written by John Pattison and myself: Engaging Maths: Everyday Investigations for Early Years (2014). The tasks are separated into short activities, investigations, and extension activities. The short activities are intended as a warm up for the more complex investigations.

Short activities:

  1. This year how many days holiday will you have before Christmas Day? How many days will there be between the beginning of the school holidays and the last day of the year?
  2. Do you have a Christmas tree? How tall is the tree? Can you touch the top of the tree if you stand on tip toe? Is the tree taller than your dad or mum? How many lights are there on the tree?
  3. Does your family put presents under the Christmas tree? How many presents did each member of your family receive? How many of the presents were yours?
  4. How much tinsel would you need to decorate the Christmas tree?
  5. Your grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts and cousins are coming to your house for Christmas. If each person has a Santa bag full of presents under the Christmas tree, how many bags would there be?
  6. If each person is given a knife, fork and spoon with which to eat their Christmas dinner, how many pieces of cutlery would you need altogether?

Investigations:

  1. Make a list of the ten presents you would like Santa Claus to bring you for Christmas. Put the presents in order starting with one (1) for your first choice. Write a letter to Santa giving reasons for your choice of presents.
  2. Use store catalogues to help you to find the cost of your list of presents. Santa has said that he can only supply one hundred dollars worth of presents. Which presents will he choose to give you?
  3. Make a list of all the food items that Mum and Dad have to buy for the Christmas dinner. How many shopping bags will they need to take to the shops to carry all the food?

Extension Activities:

  1. Christmas Day always takes place on the 25th of December. Christmas Eve is the day before Christmas Day and Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day. In 2013 Christmas Day was a Wednesday. What day was Christmas Eve and what day was Boxing Day in 2013? On which days of the week will Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day take place in the next five years? What did you discover?
  2. Christmas celebrations are very different in other countries. Use the Internet and the books in your library to investigate how people in other countries celebrate Christmas. Share the information you discovered with your classmates and teacher.
  3. There are many books with stories about Christmas in Australia. Find some of these books in the school library or on the Internet. Read your favourite story to the rest of your class.

Mathematics and Christmas: Keeping Students Engaged!

It’s that time of year again! Last year I wrote a series of blog posts to encourage teachers to continue to provide rich teaching and learning activities until the very end of the school year. I thought it would be a good idea to repost these activities for those who might want a reminder of some engaging Christmas themed mathematical explorations.

As the end of the school year approaches, report writing is almost complete and Christmas is on the horizon. It’s easy to lose focus, get distracted, and keep students occupied with ‘busy work’. However, it’s critical that we don’t waste a minute of students’ learning time, particularly when we know that over the long Christmas break some students may regress in relation to mathematical fluency and understanding.

So how can you keep mathematics engaging until the last day of school? Consider the elements required for sustained engagement to occur. Three factors are critical: cognitive, operative, and affective engagement. In terms of mathematics, true, sustained engagement occurs when students are procedurally engaged and interacting with the mathematics and with each other; when there is an element of cognitive challenge within the task; and when they understand that learning mathematics is worthwhile, valuable, and useful both within and beyond the classroom. It is easy to mistakenly think that students are engaged when they appear to be busy working, or ‘on task’. True engagement is much deeper than ‘on task’ behaviour, rather, it can be viewed as ‘in task’ behaviour, where all three elements; cognitive, operative and affective, come together. This leads to students valuing and enjoying school mathematics and seeing connections between the maths they do at school and the maths they use in their lives outside school (for more information see my FRAMEWORK FOR ENGAGEMENT WITH MATHEMATICS).

As this time of year it is easy to design mathematics tasks that promote high engagement and have the potential to stimulate learning. The following is a set of problem solving activities based on the famous Christmas Carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. The activities are suitable for children in the middle years (grades 5 to 8), however can be easily adapted to suit younger or older learners.

Resources Required:

A copy of the lyrics of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

The book “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (There are several versions available)

Price Lists

Other resources as required, eg. shopping catalogues

Possible Investigations starters/Task cards

Teaching/Learning Activities:

  • Read the book/lyrics or listen to the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
  • Discuss how the gift giver has to increase the number of gifts to his true love each day.
  • Provide students with a price list (this can be adapted according to the ability of the group)
  • At this point students can be asked to investigate the cost of the gifts, turning the activity into an open-ended investigation, or, specific questions can be posed to the students.

Examples of possible problems to explore are:

  1. What is the total number of gifts given?
  2. Is there an easy way to work this out?
  3. What is the total cost of the gifts?
  4. If the department store was holding a pre-Christmas sale and offered a 15% discount for all purchases, what would the new cost be? (This does not include performers, maids, lords etc)
  5. What if the discount offered only applied to live animals?
  6. The maids give a 10% when booked for more than two consecutive days. What would their new fee be?
  7. The musicians charge a 10% Goods and Service tax and this must be added to the total cost.
  8. How many people arrive at the true love’s house on the twelfth day?
  9. What would it cost to feed all the people and the animals? (Internet would come in handy here!)
  10. Use some Christmas shopping catalogues to replace the gifts with something more appropriate for a modern true love and calculate the cost.
  11. Re-write the lyrics to fit your new list of gifts.

The full list of activities and hypothetical price list are available on PDF here: The Twelve Days of Christmas

Other engaging end-of-year mathematics tasks are:

All of the above activities have the potential to promote high levels of engagement at a time of year when it is difficult for students and teachers to remain focussed. However, it is important to remember that any activity is only as good as the teacher implementing it. To enhance students’ engagement and learning, ensure there is regular student reflection, and rich discussion about the mathematics embedded with the tasks.